Defining Expectations

How to Define Athlete Expectations

BY Taylor Thomas

Make sure to use every race (no matter the outcome or expectation) as an opportunity to learn and grow closer with your athletes.

Many may see a coach’s job as simply writing and analyzing workouts, but ask any coach who’s been around for some time, and they’ll tell you that guiding expectations is just as big of a factor as the quality of the workouts.

Expectations define an athlete’s mental and emotional state in the training leading up to race day, during the race, as well as when they process their race results afterward. It’s critical that coaches play a part in helping to define the role key training blocks and races have for an athlete.

Outlining expectations early, and revisiting them often, helps to establish the appropriate lens through which to view training and racing at any given time of year.

Expected Outcome 

First and foremost, what’s the expected outcome of a race? The answer can’t always be to win. There’s often a disconnect between what the coach expects their athlete to get out of a race and the expected outcome of an athlete.

The goal for every major benchmark for an athlete should be that the coach and their athlete are on the same page in terms of an expected outcome. If the coach feels a particular race is going to be a good opportunity for training (but isn’t the right time to go for the win), and the athlete feels they’re fit and are looking for a podium finish, there may be an issue after the event is over. 

Always make sure to convey your expectations to athletes prior to critical moments in their training and racing schedule. Explain (in detail) why you feel the way you do, and be open to feedback and critique from the athlete. Arriving at desired expectations should be about relationship building, and entering each event as a team with a common goal. 

Emotional Preparation

An athlete can be at peak fitness, but if they’re not fit emotionally then all can be lost. The body follows the mind, and it’s important that an athlete’s mental and emotional state is addressed prior to an event. Helping to define expectations is the first step in making sure an athlete is mentally in the right space. 

Next, it’s important to discuss potential outside stressors that could lead to negative self-talk or doubt on race day. Is the athlete dealing with more work stress than normal, is there stress from relationships with friends or family, or is diet leading to a less-than-ideal body image? All of these factors can weigh heavily on an athlete’s mind coming into an important period in their training, and ultimately can negatively impact performance.

As coaches, we have to give these more nuanced components of training the respect they deserve and use them to inform any discussions around expectations and outcomes with our athletes. If the mind isn’t fit then we can’t expect excellence in other areas. 

Post Race 

Coaches arguably spend most of their time on race preparation. Between writing the training, analyzing workouts, and discussing results and plans with athletes, there’s a lot of work that goes into the front end of a race. 

While that’s all important and understandable, it’s also important to put in work on the back end of a race as well. First and foremost, the post-race review should cover expectations. Were expectations met? Did the race performance live up to both the athlete’s and coach’s expected outcome? The answer to these questions should help inform both parties on their approach moving forward

Oftentimes, the post-race review will highlight the need for a pivot or change to the original plan. This might mean further defining or changing expectations, or it could mean shifting the actual training approach. Races are major learning experiences for both athletes and coaches, and they should be utilized as such. Every race is an opportunity to learn, grow, and show up more prepared the next time around. 

Race preparation is often the primary driver for coaches and a key motivator for athletes. The physical energy that goes into any one event is massive by most standards, but don’t let that energy go to waste by not properly outlining and defining expectations. Take the time to address how an athlete’s emotional state may impact goals for an event, and make sure to use every race (no matter the outcome or expectation) as an opportunity to learn and grow closer with your athletes.

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About Taylor Thomas

Taylor Thomas is the owner and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. As a USAC and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified coach, he’s helped athletes at every level prepare for and reach their goals in road, mountain, and cyclocross.